More food for thought

As we continue with our weekly food box delivery (sans Brussels sprouts -- let's see what they throw at me next!) which delivers strictly organic and sometimes local organic products, we feel pretty good about the choices we're making. Those choices are based on a few key values:

1) buying organic often avoids potentially harmful chemical food additives*

2) buying local ensures the continuation of the small farm that may face high shipping costs to get product out of the province/country, and

3) buying local can reduce unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions related to the transportation of foods globally (if only we could get more by rail).

So it was with curious trepidation that I read two articles that, on the whole, challenge the notion of the benefits of buying local and buying certified and/or fair trade organic (FTO), one from an issue of the Economist from late 2006, and one newer piece from a right wing economics & policy think tank located in my town. The former, I find, has a lot to say and though not infallible, usually makes good points. The latter I have taken issue with from time to time, but generally I can see their point.

But first, a joke. An engineer, a statistician, and an economist are interviewing for a job. They're all asked the same question: What does two plus two equal?

Engineer: It's four. Positively four.
Statistician: It's four, and I say that with 95% confidence, 19 times out of 20.
Economist: What do YOU want it to equal?

That joke may make more sense later on. Anyway, here are the links to the articles I mentioned.

Economist article: "Voting with your trolley"
Main message: Buying local may not live up to all the hype it's been given so far, and environmentally responsible farming is both inefficient in terms of land use, and too restrictive to cater to growing food demand. The jury is, then, generally out on whether or not we're making "smart" decisions when we decide to value the environment over our tightly held pocketbooks. Also, now that big business has moved into organics and fair trade foods, the fringe is being co-opted by the centre, potentially in direct conflict with the motives of the movement in the first place.

AIMS article: "Buy local, 'til it hurts"
Main message: The new (Nova Scotia) provincial campaign designed to encourage shoppers to buy locally may be sending the wrong economic signals, hampering the potential success of local business, and building economically inefficient protectionist walls around local products where more economically efficient choices could be made. Furthermore, because it is a government-sanctioned program, taxpayer money goes to funding Government purchases of local goods and services when they may not be the most efficient use of that money, so even if the individual consumer doesn't make the choice, their tax dollars are already on board. Lastly, small businesses should be encouraged to break into high priced markets when costs of production go up, and not be tempted to sell locally at less than their maximum selling price.

Neither article offers a definitive solution.

Both articles miss one point, however. It is our pattern of consumption, and not just where you grow the food and how you get it to the consumer that can make a difference in how rational we're behaving. For instance, the Economist article cites that it's cheaper to grow tomatoes in the winter in Spain and have them trucked to England than to fuel local greenhouses to produce those same tomatoes locally. As well, the recurring argument that synthetic pesticides, made from nonrenewable resources, increase the yield by three times on the same amount of farmland, where organic and traditional cultivation would require three times the land to reach the same production level. However, through our choices, we're directly influencing the shape of the global food trade; demanding strawberries in Canada in the dead of winter is just the tip of the iceberg -- the environmentalists and the local farmers will both tell you to eat local, in season produce as much as possible, and if you're concerned about the energy expended in growing and transporting your food, you have choices to make there, too (including moving away from foods like beef, something I'm not quite ready to do myself).

My other point is this: Economists tend to see things in different ways, and often we choose to see it one way to make a point. It's all about the assumptions. You can solve a problem "correctly" as long as your assumptions are clearly communicated, and you get through the rest of the problem logically. But sometimes it comes down to discounting or excluding personal values (so-called economic irrationality) which interfere with our ability to behave as perfectly rational beings. There's some irony here, considering that economics is principally concerned with human behaviour and the choices we make given often imperfect information.

Often my economist and my environmentalist sides are at odds with one another; other times, the combination of perspectives is eerily satisfying. If I can suggest one thing (really, who's going to stop me?), it is this: As consumers, we need to be as rational as we can, or at least be consistent and satisfied with our choices. If you're going to buy local and organic for the environment's sake, do so. Embrace your economic irrationality, for we're not dealing with perfect information. Know also that the global economy is a dynamic beast, so be open and prepared to change your mind at some point in the future.

I know I don't have to invite you to weigh in on the subject; I await your comments.

* this is not the time to talk about which foods are best bought organic, though that's perhaps a post for another day. I love how NaBloPoMo results in me saving posts for the rest of the month.

Posted bythemikestand at 11:46 AM  

3 stepped up to the mike:

Brianna said... 11:59 AM, November 16, 2007  

4. I'd rather give my money to a small farm than ConAgra even if i don't know anything about the small farm except "the're not ConAgra"
5. I find the produce from my CSA is often better tasting than the produce from the grocery store (Especially true for tomatoes, cukes and carrots)
6. The surprise delivery often forces me to try no foods
7. I like feeling superior

Corgimom said... 1:08 PM, November 16, 2007  

Around our house the leftovers were getting tossed regularly until I shared with everyone an article pointing out that NOT wasting food was an easy way to help the environment as well as the household economy. I don't believe a scrap of food has been wasted since then.

Mabel said... 1:58 PM, November 16, 2007  

I always thought it was an engineer, a mathematician, and a geophysicist that were applying for the job.

So, combining the fields, maybe the added greenhouse gas emissions required to ship in those California strawberries via Calcutta will raise local temperatures, thereby increasing the length of the local growing season while improving its quality. This shift will in turn moderate shipments from away, and eventually regulate the climate system through its own feedback loop.

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